The Buzzer

Baseball's big problem, explained

Spring training has arrived, and two of baseball's biggest stars still don't have a team. Owners are getting richer while players and fans get more frustrated. Can the game fix itself before it's too late?

The players are right — the system is broken. Will MLB fix it before it's too late?

Anyone want an MVP-calibre slugger? Anyone? (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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It's a slow time for sports news, so today let's drill down on a single topic: what's wrong with baseball.

Spring training is here — and no one seems happy

The Toronto Blue Jays' pitchers and catchers reported to Dunedin, Fla., on Thursday. Nearly every major-league team now has players working out, and their full rosters will all be in camp by this time next week.

"Pitchers and catchers" is usually a feel-good time — but not so much this year. It's supposed to signal that spring is getting closer, but unless you're a snowbird the weather is awful everywhere. It's supposed to signal optimism and a fresh start, but fewer teams than ever seem interested in actually contending. Baseball is in trouble right now.

Here's an explainer on what's going on:

The two biggest free agents still haven't signed

Outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Manny Machado are two of the most attractive players to hit the market in recent memory. They're both MVP (even Hall of Fame) calibre players who are 26 years old — right in their prime and likely to remain productive through the end of their next contract. Guys like this used to have their pick of teams offering long-term contracts for big money. They would have signed back in December. Instead, they're still waiting for the right offer.

Harper and Machado aren't the only good players who don't have a team

Houston pitcher Dallas Keuchel is coming off a down year by his standards, but he's a former Cy Young winner who's still only 31. Craig Kimbrel saved 42 games last year for the World Series champion Red Sox. Infielder Mike Moustakas is back in the same boat after giving up and taking a one-year deal in March last year.

Other stars settled for short deals because they couldn't do any better

Yasmani Grandal is one of the best catchers in the game, but he accepted a one-year deal with Milwaukee. Super-talented outfielder Michael Brantley took two years from Houston. There's been a few three-to-five-year deals for decent money (A.J. Pollock, Andrew McCutchen, Aaron Nola). But the only guy you can say really broke the bank with an old-school, long-term contract is pitcher Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million US from Washington).

Players are getting angry about this

Astros pitcher Justin Verlander tweeted that the "system is broken" and questioned why even so-called "rebuilding" teams wouldn't want to sign Harper and Machado to 10-year deals. "Seems like a good place to start a rebuild," he wrote. Good point.

How about a fantastic young shortstop? No? OK, cool. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

So what's going on here?

Verlander is right — the system is broken. For the players, at least. Baseball teams have always suppressed the salaries of young players by not allowing them to become free agents until, usually, their late-20s. But players could bank on a payday down the road because enough teams were always willing to pay a lot of money for free agents.

This delicate balance was upset — like a lot of things in the sport — by the data revolution that has overturned baseball since Moneyball was published in 2003. Smart teams realized free agents were overpaid. They also figured out that young players can be almost as good as experienced ones — at a fraction of the cost. As more and more analytics-minded executives took over front offices, this thinking became basically the industry standard. As someone smarter than me once put it, modern general managers aren't just evaluators of baseball talent anymore — they're actuaries. Also...

Baseball teams are businesses — now more than ever

Verlander is right about another thing — pretty much any team can afford to sign Harper or Machado. Or both. Or any other player it wants. Major League Baseball is making more money than ever these days. And thanks to its revenue-sharing program and rising franchise values, even the "poorest" teams are guaranteed to turn a profit for their owners.

The downside is that teams don't have to sign free agents anymore to attract fans in order to make money. They'll make it anyway, so many owners don't see the point in digging into their pockets for a player who might slightly increase their chances of winning a championship.

This could end badly

Maybe with a work stoppage. Other high-profile players besides Verlander have spoken out, and they have a point. Revenues and team values are soaring, but owners aren't sharing the wealth as much as they used to. According to Forbes, MLB teams spent $115 million US less on salaries last year compared to 2017, and players are worried that's happening again. When the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021, you can bet the players will fight this.

But there's an even worse scenario than a strike or lockout. A healthy hot stove is key to keeping fans engaged over the off-season. And what happens if fans stop thinking their favourite team really cares about winning? Would they start to question the game itself?

Baseball is a less appealing sport now than it was a few years ago. The analytics guys have put a lot of work into figuring out what actually wins games and, while you can't blame them for doing what it takes, some of the results aren't pretty.

Baseball is now an extreme power game where hitters swing (and miss) from the heels against an endless string of flame-throwing relievers. When they make contact, the ball often lands in the teeth of a defensive shift. The pitching changes are endless. The ball is in play less than ever. Entertainment alternatives are everywhere. Sure, the cash is still rolling in. But you can't just count on fans sticking with baseball forever.

Note: If you want to read more on this topic, I recommend these excellent stories by Neil deMause at Deadspin and Michael Baumann at The Ringer.

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